Archive for May, 2013

Don Ameche: Started with Texas Guinan

Posted in Broadway, Circus, Hollywood (History), Italian, Movies, Radio (Old Time Radio), Sit Coms, Stars of Vaudeville, Television, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , on May 31, 2013 by travsd

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Today’s is the birthday of Don Ameche (Dominic Amici, 1908-1993). Ameche got his start performing in college theatricals in his native Wisconsin. From here he traveled with a stock company in a play called “Excess Baggage”, and then toured big time vaudeville in an act starring Texas Guinan. (Guinan later let him go, saying he was “too stiff”, which sounds about right).

Not long after (1935), the dashing, gentlemanly Ameche began to get cast in Hollywood movies. Notable films included One in a Million  (1936), In Old Chicago (1937), Alexander’s Ragtime Band (1938), The Three Musketeers (1939), The Story of Alexander Graham Bell (1939), Swanee Riverin which he played Stephen Foster (1939), Lillian Russell (1940), Down Argentine Way with Carmen Miranda (1940), and the original Heaven Can Wait (1943).

He was also a major radio star, guesting on most of the popular shows of the day, and co-starring with Frances Langford in the sit-com The Bickersons. He also appeared on Broadway a half dozen times, most notably in the original 1955 production of Silk Stockings. 

From 1961 through 1965 he hosted the NBC television program International Showtime, a show in which he gave play-by-play commentary on European circuses. He continued to act in television and films throughout the films, although work started to dry up in the early 70s. And then (as most readers know, I’m sure) his career enjoyed an impressive third act, when he starred in several successful films, Trading Places (1983), Cocoon (1985), Harry and the Hendersons (1987), Coming to America (1988), Things Change (1988), Cocoon: The Return (1988), Corrina, Corrina (1994) and many others.

At any rate, today seems to be a big radio day (see today’s earlier Fred Allen post.) I’m a big fan of The Bickersons, I think it’s quite rudely hilarious, and I’m kind of surprised no one has remade it, although in a certain way ALL modern sit-coms are riffs on The Bickersons. But here’s a sample.

To find out about  the history of vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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For more on silent and slapstick comedy please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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Mel Blanc: The Voice Came from Vaudeville

Posted in Comedy, Hollywood (History), Jews/ Show Biz, Latin American/ Spanish, Radio (Old Time Radio), Stars of Vaudeville, Television, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , on May 30, 2013 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of Melvin Jerome “Mel” Blank [original spelling] (1908-1989). Everyone knows him as voice-over actor of all the classic Warner Bros cartoon characters: Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, Yosemite Sam, Foghorn Leghorn, Speedy Gonzalez, Pepe LePew, Sylvester and Tweety, etc. In later years, Blanc also did Hanna-Barbara characters such as Barney Rubble on The Flintsones and Mr. Spacely on The Jetsons.

But today we want to hit the vaudeville angle. A San Francisco native, Blanc dropped out of high school to conduct local big bands and perform comedy in small time vaudeville theatres in the Pacific Northwest (the area known by vaudevillians as “the death trail” due to its long jumps between towns). In 1927, he broke into radio, and his talent for doing many voices quickly became noticed, and he rapidly worked his way up the rungs from local radio to national shows like The Joe Penner Show on CBS and The Jack Benny Program on NBC. He was to remain a staple of Benny’s radio and television programs until it went off the air in 1965, usually in highly anticipated cameos, such as the train station announcer, whose last departure town was always “CUCamonga”, and “Sy, the Little Mexican” (the routine that went “Si…Sy…Sew…Sue. See below for a variant of that one). He also made frequent appearances on other hit radio programs such as The Abbott and Costello Show and Burns and AllenHis work in animation began in 1937.

Here’s one (of probably dozens) of the Sy routines with Benny. It’s not politically correct but neither was vaudeville.

To find out about  the history of vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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For more on silent and slapstick comedy please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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Stepin Fetchit: A Minstrel Too-Much Maligned

Posted in African American Interest, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 30, 2013 by travsd

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A problematic figure in these annals, Stepin Fetchit is much maligned nowadays for having played a shiftless, shuffling, mumbling, lazy no account servant in Hollywood movies throughout the 1930s. On the other hand, he’s one of the first African Americans to get his foot in the door — even if the foot was wearing a hobo shoe. Mel Watkins, in his terrific book about African American comedy On the Real Side, postulates that the comedian’s character was actually a brand of subversive sarcasm, an exponent of a coping strategy that dates back to slavery days. Stepin Fetchit (real name Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry, born on this day in 1902) was the first African American to get  screen credit and the first to make a million dollars in show business.

At the age of 14, he’d run off to join an all-black minstrel show. Later, he formed a two man act with a friend name Ed Lee called “Skeeter and Rastus — Two Dancing Fools from Dixie”, and they worked the black vaudeville circuits. Gradually, the act evolved and they became “Step ‘n’ Fetchit”. When his partner left the act, Perry kept the name for himself. He got his first film role in 1925, reportedly by remaining in character before, during and after the audition, a strategy he was reported to have used frequently in order to outsmart his directors and producers. He was in some of the biggest hits of the 1930s, including several with his friend Will Rogers and one with Shirley Temple. He was also highly influential: performers of the era who emulated include Matthew “Stymie” Beard from Our GangMantan Moreland, and Willie Best (a.k.a “Sleep ‘n’ Eat”).

By the 1940s, however, the Hollywood parts were few and far between (although he made numerous low budget all-black pictures) and he was forced to declare bankruptcy). It was back to the chitlin circuit and nightclubs for his last few decades. I will say this: you can see him in the amazingly weird 1974 picture Amazing Grace starring Moms Mabley, Slappy White, Moses Gunn and Butterfly McQueen. I’m warning you right now: I consider it well worth watching, but you just may consider it far too weird. Stepin Fetchit suffered a stroke in 1976 and spent his last few years in the Motion Picture and Television Country House and Hospital, passing away in 1985.

Here he is with Hattie McDaniel in a scene from Judge Priest.

 

To find out about  the history of vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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For more on silent and slapstick comedy please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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Ben Bernie, “The Old Maestro”

Posted in Ballroom/ Big Band/ Swing, Music, Radio (Old Time Radio), Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , on May 30, 2013 by travsd

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Personality was everything in vaudeville. Pretty music aside, a major factor in the success of a band was a colorful and entertaining bandleader. Bernie and others we’ll meet frequently developed their own catchphrases, many of which outlived the fame of their originators. You may not have heard of Bernie, but you’ve certainly heard the phrase “yowsah, yowsah, yowsah.” That one was his.

Born Bernard Anzelvitz on this day in 1891, he set out to be a serious musician. He debuted as a concert violinist at Carnegie Hall at age 14. Apparently that didn’t go anywhere, for in 1910, he teamed up with accordionist Charles Klass to from the vaudeville act “the Fiddle-Up-Boys”. In 1915 he formed a more successful partnership with Phil Baker. Baker played the accordion and gradually added more and more jokes until it was essentially a comedy act. They parted ways in 1923, with Baker going to even greater fame on stage, screen and radio.

Bernie was more interested in music then laughs. In ’23, he formed Ben Bernie and All the Lads, which had a standing gig at the Roosevelt Hotel for the next six years. In the early 30s, the band toured vaudeville with Maurice Chevalier. For a long time, Oscar Levant was Bernie’s piano player. Bernie’s radio show was a fixture on CBS from 1931 until he passed away in 1943.

Bernie is responsible for Jack Benny’s stage name. In 1921, the comedian (whose real name was Benjamin Kubelsky) began calling himself Ben K. Benny. He soon receieved a “cease and desist” letter from Bernie’s lawyers – too similar. His music may have been sleepy and gentle, but in show business you played hardball. Yowsah, yowsah, yowsah.

Here he is with his orchestra, playing my grandmother’s favorite song, “Sweet Georgia Brown”

To find out about  the history of vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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For more on silent and slapstick comedy please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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The OTHER Little Jack Little

Posted in Ballroom/ Big Band/ Swing, Music, Radio (Old Time Radio), Singers, Stars of Vaudeville, Tin Pan Alley, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , on May 30, 2013 by travsd

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There are two Little Jack Littles in the annals of show business:. One is a dwarf comedian who worked in burlesque (unfortunately not the subject of today’s post). At all events,  today is the birthday of the singer, songwriter and bandleader Jack Little (John Leonard, 1899-1956). British born, he was raised in Iowa, where he first started playing with bands while in college. By the early 30s he had made his way to the Palace, nightclubs, radio and recording contracts. Some of his songs include “A Shanty in Old Shanty Town”, “Jealous” and “I’ve Always Called You Sweetheart”.

Listen to him croon right now (along with the Do-Re-Mi Girls)

To find out about  the history of vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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For more on silent and slapstick comedy please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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Mademoiselle Gabrielle: “Half Woman” in Vaudeville

Posted in Circus, Coney Island, Dime Museum and Side Show, Human Anomalies (Freaks), Limbs, Missing or Small, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , on May 30, 2013 by travsd

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Mademoiselle Gabrielle (1884-?) is one of the very few human oddities known to have performed in vaudeville (as opposed to circuses, sideshows, and dime museums, although she certainly performed in those types of venues as well). Born completely legless in Basel, Switzerland, she first exhibited herself at age 16 at the Paris Exposition of 1900. Her success there opened the door to America, where she performed at Dreamland Circus Sideshow in Coney Island, and Ringling Bros Barnum & Bailey, billed as the “Half Woman”. Beautiful of visage as well as of figure (assisted by the then ubiquitous corset), she accentuated these aspects, dressing in fine clothes and adornments. And this is what made vaudeville (theoretically more refined and polite) possible for someone like Gabrielle.

If you’re a vaudeville buff already then you can probably guess which theatre hired her. It was Hammerstein’s Victoria in 1912. Unfortunately, the date ended in acrimony when Gabrielle broke her contract.

To find out about  the history of vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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For more on silent and slapstick comedy please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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The Great Raymond

Posted in Circus, Dime Museum and Side Show, Magicians/ Mind Readers/ Quick Change, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , on May 30, 2013 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of The Great Raymond (Maurice Francois Sanders, 1877-1948). His magic career began as a child when he worked as an assistant to his uncle. At age ten he was performing on a trapeze and with horse in the ring at Adam Forepaugh’s circus. By 15 he was doing magic on his own. By 1902 he was performing escapology in Chicago in act somewhat derivative of Houdini. From here he toured the country with a show he described as “two thirds mystery, one third vaudeville”. He was tour the entire world with his large show of illusions no less than seven times.

To find out about  the history of vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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For more on silent and slapstick comedy please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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